Schools draft ethics code in Balto. Co. Panel developed rules after a contractor provided free trips

'A concerted effort'

Board members will hear proposal, could vote tonight

September 10, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

More than a year after revelations that a technology contractor provided free trips for school system employees, Baltimore County school officials have developed an ethics code regulating lobbying, gifts, travel and other financial enticements.

The rules, which will be proposed to the school board tonight, follow a pledge by Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione 13 months ago to develop an ethics code. If approved, the county school system would be the last in the state to establish a code; most districts adopted such policies more than a decade ago.

School systems that didn't set up their own codes fell under the more general county ethics laws.

"I think it's important that the schools are moving in this direction," said Linda Cotton, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the 20-member committee that made the policy recommendations. "And that they asked business to be a part of it."

The panel was formed after disclosures that Educational Management Group Inc. financed trips in 1994 and 1995 to its Arizona headquarters -- including airfare and stays in a four-star hotel -- for more than 70 teachers and administrators while negotiating a $5 million no-bid contract with the system.

Shortly after taking the superintendent's job, Marchione scrapped EMG's proposal and said he expected recommendations for an ethics policy within weeks. But Cotton and others said the task turned out to be more complex than expected.

The proposed policy, obtained by The Sun, would apply to all school system employees. It governs conflicts of interest, calls for financial and lobbying disclosure and sets up a review panel to make case-by-case judgments. It appears to ban trips such as those financed by EMG, by prohibiting companies from paying for travel while they seek contracts from the school system.

Even though the board is to discuss the proposed policy tonight -- and could vote on it -- school system officials would not release it. Spokesman Donald Mohler said members were "adamant that they don't want anything given out before it goes to the board."

Members received copies of the policy more than a week ago.

On the whole, the ethics policy does what it should, said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland. "It appears the committee has made a concerted effort to create a comprehensive ethics policy."

However, she said the policy's definition of "lobbyist" does not specifically include people paid to lobby, only those spending money on gifts or meals and trying to influence policy. That might create a loophole, she said, allowing union representatives or other lobbyists who do not necessarily spend money to avoid registering and disclosing their activities.

"Though there is a little paperwork, I don't see registering as a lobbyist as an onerous activity," she said. "And for the public's interest I think we'd like to know who is being paid to try and influence the Board of Education."

Also, she strongly recommended that the board hold a public hearing to screen appointees to the panel that will sit in judgment over conflicts that arise.

Maryland passed an ethics statute in 1979, requiring all local governments to adopt ethics laws, said Nancy Speck, general counsel at the state ethics commission, which approves the laws.

In the 1980s, when questions arose about how school boards fit into those laws, a provision was added allowing boards to create ethics codes; those that didn't would fall under county laws. Most school systems established codes right away, Speck said.

William I. Weston, associate dean of Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, who until recently was a senior fellow at the Hoffberger Center for Ethics at the University of Baltimore, said school system ethics policies in Maryland generally are more demanding than those of county governments. Weston and others said that devising their own ethics codes gave school boards a symbol of autonomy. The idea school systems try to project is that they hold themselves to a higher standard, he said.

"Whether they achieved that goal is another matter," he said.

He cautioned against putting too much faith in such regulations.

"We got along for so many years without these codes of ethics," Weston said. "Do we live in a better time now that we have them? Is government really more honest today than it was 20 or 30 years ago? Hardly."

Board member Robert Dashiell, who spoke forcefully against the EMG trips, said the proposed policy doesn't go far enough.

Dashiell would like a provision precluding vendors from bidding on contracts if they have helped write bid specifications for the project, as well as rules prohibiting vendors that have test-marketed products in schools from securing single-source contracts.

The system has procurement guidelines prohibiting prospective bidders from helping to write bid specifications. Dashiell's proposal would carry the force of law.

"I've seen many instances where vendors, particularly for computer software, go into the schools and do dog and pony shows for principals, and [officials] come to us with proposed sole-source contracts, with vendors that have developed prior relationships," he said. "They test the product, then convert it into a contractual relationship."

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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